The Conqueror Worm (1968)

“Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do.” Set in 1645 during the English Civil War and based rather loosely on real events, this spectacular cult classic evinces one of the bleakest views of humanity in film history (Sara’s seemingly endless scream during the final scene is still ringing in my ears!). In The Conqueror Worm (AKA Witchfinder General), all institutions are corrupt, people are inherently evil and the masses stand passively by as their friends and family members get tortured and killed after being accused of sorcery and witchcraft. The film stars Vincent Price in one of his greatest roles as the evil Matthew Hopkins, a self-described witch hunter who roams the countryside with his sadistic assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) brutally torturing and killing suspected witches. After a village priest, John Lowes (Rupert Davies) is tortured and killed, and his niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer) raped, Sara’s fiancé and soldier (he’s one of Oliver Cromwell’s “Roundheads”) Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), vows revenge. The film was released in the UK as Witchfinder General but retitled The Conqueror Worm in the United States in an effort to tie it to Roger Corman’s string of Edgar Allan Poe-inspired films for American International Pictures (AIP) – House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and the Tomb of Ligeia (1964) – all of which starred Price except The Premature Burial. The Conqueror Worm was based on Ronald Bassett’s 1966 novel, Witchfinder General, and directed by Michael Reeves, who tragically died of a drug overdose at the age of 25 in 1969 (less than a year after the film’s UK release). Reeves wanted Donald Pleasence to portray Hopkins but AIP insisted Price be given the lead role. Upon their first meeting, Reeves reportedly told Price, “I didn’t want you and I still don’t want you, but I’m stuck with you!” In A Century of Films (2000), critic Derek Malcolm writes, “[Reeves] was much more than simply promising, and deserves to be remembered.”

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